MLK was nearly a UU!
Aaron McEmry wrote, in his MLK day sermon “The Almost Unitarian” years ago something I had heard rumors of before. MLK flirted with Unitarian Universalism. He and thus I got some confirmation from a report Rosemary Bray McNatt made from her encounter with Coretta Scott King, when she was being considered as a possible co-writer of Coretta Scott King’s autobiography. When they sat down to get to know one another, and Rosemary mentioned that she was in seminary, training for the Unitarian Universalist Ministry, Mrs. King’s eyes lit up.
“Oh, I went to Unitarian churches for years, even before I met Martin" she said, "And Martin and I went to Unitarian churches when we were in Boston."
McEmry reports in his sermon, something I have heard elsewhere, that she and Martin, “(We), …gave a lot of thought to becoming Unitarian at one time, but (that) Martin and I realized we could never build a mass movement of black people if we were Unitarian."
Ugh! Why not? Aaron asked frustratedly … And I right with him.
‘Why couldn’t Martin Luther King, Jr. be a Unitarian.
McEmry conveys in her reporting of McNatt’s “King was initially thrilled, liberated even, by religious liberalism, especially by our unflagging faith in the essential goodness of human nature and by our use of reason in religion.”
However, … “as the Civil Rights Movement began to pick up steam, he (King)
noticed that a reasoned, rational approach was great for developing opinions and
intellectual positions – but when white-robed men with torches rode through the
streets or lines of policemen waded in with billy clubs – reason often proved too
brittle to stand its ground.”
“Ugh! True!” That is my own response. Not Rosemary’s or Aaron’s.
Seemingly, King’s most serious reservation about becoming a Unitarian Minister
was that he feared that mostly white, mostly well-off Unitarians would never rise up, risk their privilege, and lay it on the line when the make-it-or-break-it moment
Ow! or as the kids say “snap!” That is hard to hear and probably true.
MLK’s own personal experience with Unitarian Universalism began when he was
a student at Boston University, back in the early 1950s. While getting his Ph.D. in
town he attended services at a few of the local Unitarian churches, and from the
reports and rumors I have heard, somewhere between occasionally and frequently attended the Arlington St. Church, in particular, to listen to Rev. Dana Greeley. He claimed that Greely was “of inestimable value in the continuance of our humble efforts.”
That’s a cool and painful ‘what if’. Isn’t it?
An even better question is; would he have accomplished all he did had he actually
become a UU?
King was invited to be the Ware Lecturer at the Hollywood Florida General
Assembly in 1966. In that speech, less than two years before he was killed, he
delivered another speech titled “Don’t Sleep Through the Revolution,” compelling
us as UUs to live up to the church’s responsibility to be the moral guardian of
community and society.
We both are, and are not, fulfilling that call. However, what time is better than now
to heed it?
What time is better than now, with a quarter of our country living with seemingly every instinct and intention contrary to our own efforts to fulfill that potential?
What a time to prove him wrong - that from out of our reason and prudence and
privilege, as a predominantly white denomination, we are capable of being that
What a time to prove King wrong.
 Rosemary Bray McNatt, “To Pray Without Apology” in the UU World, November/December 2002.
 Martin Luther King Jr., Witnessing for the Truth, Unitarian Universalism, Beacon Press 2014.